Spotlight on Monica Ortiz: Living Her Life’s Mission through Literacy First  

Monica (left) during one of her terms as a Leader, posing with her Perez Elementary teammates.

“Literacy First has taught me that your life can change based on one year of service. You may think that this is what you’re going to do and you come out at the end of your service a different person.”  

That’s exactly what happened to Monica Ortiz, Literacy First’s AmeriCorps Coach Manager, who first came to us as an AmeriCorps member for a year of national service. What originally started as one year of AmeriCorps service has since become 14 years of dedication to supporting growing readers, tutors, and literacy coaches. In February, Monica celebrated her 10-year anniversary as a staff member. In celebration of this milestone, we sat down with her to learn more about who she is, her career path, and the role Literacy First has played in her life over the past decade.

Monica on the set of Despierta Austin at Univision.

“I’ve lived along I-35 forever”, Monica began when asked to share about her background. Born in Mexico, Monica immigrated to the U.S. when she was young and grew up in New Braunfels, Texas, just 50 miles south of Austin by way of I-35. Monica was deeply connected to the Spanish-speaking community where she grew up and learned English while in elementary school. “I was very privileged that everyone around me, my family, embraced being bilingual. I’ve only seen bilingualism open doors for me.”  

Monica dreamed of becoming a bilingual pediatrician throughout high school and college, shaped by her family’s experiences with the health care system and driven by her love for working with children. “My family went in and out of being able to have health insurance,” she shared. “I saw first-hand how hard it was for my family to have access to health care. I knew I wanted to work with kids and I knew I wanted to work with communities that just don’t have access. That is what drove me.”  

After graduating from Dallas Baptist University with a Bachelor of Science in biology, a minor in chemistry, and concentration in bioinformatics, she planned to apply to medical school. But once she completed her undergraduate degree, she felt burnt out from work and school and wanted to pause before jumping back into her studies. That’s when she decided to explore national service options with AmeriCorps, found Literacy First, and her career path took an unexpected turn. 

Monica representing AmeriCorps as a member at the Texas State Capitol.

Monica joined Literacy First as a Spanish Literacy Tutor in 2010, providing direct service and teaching students to read in her first language. She was immediately energized by the atmosphere of our AmeriCorps program.  “It was very refreshing being in a room full of people who wanted to do service-oriented things. There are a lot of good people out there who want to do good. I think it’s a good reminder to know that I wasn’t the only one thinking the way I think.” This inspired her to serve with AmeriCorps for multiple terms, next as a team Leader for two years, where, in addition to her usual tutoring responsibilities, she provided support to the other tutors at her school. 

It was during her third year serving with us that Monica started to question if she really wanted to go to medical school. “I had this life crisis moment. I still wanted to pursue becoming a pediatrician and I was actually studying again for my MCATs. However, every day I was falling more and more in love with [Literacy First’s] mission and what we were doing and how much of an impact I can have.” At this crossroad, she paused and reflected on what she wanted her life’s mission to be. “Once I did that, the pressure alleviated because I recognized I’m living it, and I’ve been living it. That is ultimately what influenced me to stay.” 

Once she realized she was living her mission, she served a fourth term through AmeriCorps as a Capacity Building Member. In this role, she no longer provided direct tutoring services for students and instead supported our coaches and other staff. Because our Capacity Building Members do not have a caseload of their own students, they wear many different hats and have the flexibility to support tutors, coaches, and other Literacy First staff as needed.

At the end of her final year of AmeriCorps service, a staff position became available, and she was hired onto our team as a coach. Ten years later, Monica is doing what she does best—coaching and supporting others across different levels of the organization. She now manages a group of current AmeriCorps members, the Leadership Academy program for our AmeriCorps Leaders, Capacity Building Members, and several coaches.

As a coach, Monica visits campuses weekly to support tutors. Here she poses with a student at one of the campuses she supervised. All the tutors and staff at this campus said this student reminded them of a mini-Monica.

Monica’s contributions to Literacy First over the years have been vital in improving the quality of our program and support services. She was instrumental in developing the kindergarten content for our proprietary Spanish literacy curriculum, Alma del Lector. She has also coordinated our pre-service training, the intensive week-long training that all members attend at the beginning of the year, almost every year since she started. Monica has a keen eye for recognizing gaps in our program and presenting solutions to fix them, such as identifying trainings and resources to better support our members’ mental health needs. She lit up as she shared, “What I enjoy most about my current role is watching new coaches blossom, watching their confidence in the coach they are grow”. A true coach at heart, Monica loves seeing those she supports thrive.  

When asked about what she is proudest of regarding her work at Literacy First, she didn’t name one of these many accomplishments. Instead, she responded, “How proud my dad is of me. He gets so excited for my job and what I’m doing. He’s a custodian at an elementary school so we can talk—like during the pandemic it was so hard and he could relate. I think about everything my dad did for my brother and I and that’s what I’m proud of. My dad was a migrant worker and he worked really hard his whole life. In this job now, the way he talks about or to me is very highly. It makes me proud.” 

“This program has changed my life,” she said to conclude her interview. We hear these words often from our members and Monica’s story is a testament to how impactful a year of service can be. What started off as a break before she pursued other goals eventually turned into a long, rewarding career in service of supporting others and furthering our mission to teach young children foundational literacy skills. Thank you, Monica, for dedicating your invaluable talents and more than 10 years of service to Literacy First.